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The blinding North Dakota blizzard blasted against Elizabeth Irmen as the young schoolteacher and her troupe of students trudged through the knee-deep snow. The lane that led from their rural North Dakota schoolhouse to the main road was already obscured. They must move quickly before the whirling winds heaped the snow into mountainous drifts. Otherwise, it could be disastrous.
From behind her, came the drone of a truck engine and turning her face into the whipping wind, she saw the welcome sight of headlights approaching. Hastily, she huddled her students off the highway and watched as the huge truck slid to a stop near the spot where the children had been walking only a few moments earlier. The door flew open, and the driver, Walter Ward, called to them through the storm. “Come on, kids! Pile in. I’ll get you home.”
Gratefully, with teeth chattering, the children clambered aboard the warm vehicle. As Walter assisted the children, he asked the teacher “And where do you live, honey?” It was an innocent question. She was so young he’d mistaken her as one of the students. “Well, honey-” she replied with a twinkle in her eye, “-I just live around the corner. I’m the teacher.” It didn’t escape her attention that this thoughtful “rescuer” was strong and good-looking. An awkward introduction, but it was a beginning. Walter and Elizabeth fell in love and marriage quickly followed.
Soon their lives revolved almost entirely around children. They had nine of their own. Three of those children – Annie, Nelly, and Matthew – would become the “2nd Chapter of Acts,” one of the pioneering groups in contemporary Christian music. Much of what they set in motion continues to influence Christian music today.
To understand the impact of the 2nd Chapter of Acts’ music and ministry, it helps to reflect upon how God called them into relationship with Himself, how He filled them with His presence, and how He has worked in and through the lives of three shy, unassuming kids from North Dakota. Where did they come from? How did they get to where they are today? What was God saying through them in the ’70s and ’80s, and what is He saying through them today? Let’s go back to the beginning.
|The Early Days
In the 1950s, Walter Ward worked hard as an itinerant farmer to provide a sparse living for his sprawling family. He was a happy man who loved to dance, sing, and play the harmonica. Though poor, the Wards were rich in love, fun and music. “There were many things we did not have,” Annie recalls. “Things such as indoor plumbing and other ‘luxuries.’ But the one thing we did have was love. No matter what, we always knew Mom and Dad loved us.” “I never heard my parents argue,” recalls Annie. “They were always very kind to each other, and to us.”
Music was a major part of the Wards’ life. Annie began singing publicly at five years of age, with her older sister, Kathryn and Stephanie. They performed favorites like, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” while their mom accompanied them on piano. “The Ward Sisters” sang for all sorts of rural festivities: farm co-op meetings, the dedication of a new train engine, school openings, and country church picnics.
The Catholic Church also had a great impact on Annie. It was there when says she first encountered the majesty of God. “I loved the Church,” says Annie. “I loved to sing in the choir and to sing those Latin masses. It filled me with a tremendous sense of awe. I didn’t understand much about God, but I loved the liturgy. I loved taking communion. The only thing I didn’t love about the church was going to confession. That was a scary thing. I didn’t always tell the truth in confession, because I was too embarrassed.”
|It was late in 1950 that Elizabeth began to complain of chronic headaches and constant physical weakness. Doctors diagnosed her as having epilepsy. Despite their best efforts, Elizabeth’s condition grew worse year after year. The family moved to California to be closer to relatives who could help in the face of Elizabeth’s deteriorating health.
In 1968, Elizabeth Ward died of a brain tumor. She had been misdiagnosed for more than a decade. Nelly recalls looking at her mom during the funeral and learning an early truth, “When I looked at her body lying there, it was suddenly obvious that the body was not my mother..only a shell remained.” For Nelly (12 yrs) and Matthew (11yrs) who still remained at home life became more difficult. Nelly would take on more of the families cooking and cleaning duties as Walter tried to continue life without Elizabeth.Annie was left reeling at her mother’s death. She was dabbling in drugs, searching for the meaning to life in Eastern mysticism and in New Age type religions. Nothing satisfied the inner longings of her heart. The loss of her mother intensified Annie’s sense of loneliness and meaninglessness-and it forced her to face the fleeting, fragile, nature of life.
About this time, Annie’s boyfriend, Buck Herring, committed his life to Jesus Christ. His new faith was about to make Annie face another confrontation.
|A “New” Boyfriend
Buck Herring had hopes of steering a rock band into the big-time. One day, while working as a deejay at a Top-40 station, Buck received a frantic phone call from one of his band members. In a panic-stricken voice, he informed Buck that their drug supplier had “gotten religion” and was refusing to deal drugs any more! Buck was intrigued. The dealer told Buck that he’d been “filled with the Spirit,” and it was true, there was an undeniable change. To his own amazement, Buck asked if they could go to church together some time. The moment Buck walked into the church, he realized that these people were Spirit-filled, with a capital “S”. The worshippers were raising their hands to the Lord singing and speaking praise to him…out loud! Oh! No! Buck thought. These people are nuts! As he stood there, fighting an urge to leave, Buck also experienced a powerful stirring in his heart. The searching question came to him: Are you willing to be foolish in your own eyes-for My sake? He pondered the implications of this query for less than a minute. Then by a simple act of his will, Buck raised his hands in the air and began to speak words of praise to Jesus.
Shortly after surrendering his life to the Lord, Buck began to sense a conflict between his faith in Christ and the lyrics of the songs that he played as a Top-40 deejay. He resigned his position at the radio station, even though he had no idea where he’d find work.
|He also parted company with the rock band. He’d purchased some used recording equipment two years before, in hopes of producing demo tapes of the band. Following his commitment to Christ, he packed up the equipment and donated it all- microphones, tape deck, control board, everything- to the church where he’d given his life to Jesus.
As he was packing the equipment, Buck found himself saying out loud: “Father, I would love to produce records for Your kingdom.One of the first people Buck wanted to tell about his new commitment to Jesus was Annie Ward. They have been involved with each other previously, but the relationship had soured. By now, Annie was living in Los Angeles, working with a singing group and on the verge of breaking into a successful pop music career. Although she considered herself a “seeker of truth,” she really wasn’t interested in “Jesus stuff”. But since the death of her mom, Annie had continued searching for something to take away the haunting pain and emptiness. For two weeks following his spiritual rebirth, Buck prayed for Annie regularly-not about a potential relationship, but out of concern for the fact that she was lost without Christ. One day, he sensed the Lord saying, “Go find her.” He drove to LA and eventually, found Annie living with the members of her singing group at the home of a famous songwriter, who was hoping to launch the group onto the charts. Buck zealously shared his newfound faith with Annie. He briefly told her that she needed to be “born again.” Although Annie didn’t understand what he meant, she was willing to listen.
He also thrust into her hands a copy of the Modern English New Testament, Good News for Modern Man. “Read this,” he said. And after praying, he left her stunned.
For more than a week, the book remained untouched. But there was something about Buck’s prayer…Annie felt as if something profound was happening deep within. Nothing in her life seemed worthwhile-not the drugs, not even the promise of fame.
Several days after Buck’s visit, Annie finally picked up the book he’d left and decided to read it-from the back! The Book of Revelation, amazingly, made sense to her. Perhaps it was the sense of majesty she’d felt as a little girl, but she saw Jesus for who He is-King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
|Still pondering this Jesus of Revelation, Annie sat down at the piano and started fooling with the keys. She didn’t really know how to play, but as a child she’d learned a few basics by watching her mother play. To her surprise, she began playing and the words to a song rushed in. Puzzled, Annie stared at the keyboard. Okay, she thought. This song did not come from me. Where did this song come from? In her mind’s eye, she pictured Jesus. He was walking toward her, and Annie had the conviction that the song had come from Him. What did this mean? Then Jesus spoke to Annie and His words seared into her heart: The only thing I am asking of you is to give your life to Me and let Me live through you.|
|The Wild Weekend
The next time Annie saw Buck, something was different about him. She was fascinated when he explained that he’d been filled with the Holy Spirit. What kind of spiritual power could change a guy like Buck? She wondered. That night, Buck asked if he could pray for her. When she consented, he took her hand, and prayed a simple prayer.
|The next morning, when Annie got up, she knew she had two items of business to take care of: She quit the singing group, and committed her life to Jesus Christ. Annie’s commitment to Christ was total, even though it meant losing all that she had ever wanted in the music business. “Nobody told me that I had to quit everything in order to become a Christian,” Annie recalls, “but once I had made a decision to follow Christ, it seemed like the only logical choice. It was so clear: I could choose everything that I thought I ever wanted…or I could choose Jesus.” That night, Buck and Annie went to the home of some folks Buck knew, “Jesus people” who claimed to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Annie wanted the same Spirit that had changed Buck to fill her life. A group of “Jesus people” gathered around Annie as she sat on a chair in the center of the group. They began praying for her and singing in the Spirit. Suddenly, Annie experienced a vision of heaven. She describes it like this:
“There was a myriad of people around the throne of God. The dimension was different than anything I had ever seen in this world. I saw myself in front of the twenty-four elders – though I didn’t know who or what they were then. I smelled the incense around the altar. I sensed incredible power…
Suddenly, I saw Jesus. I loved Him so much! I started toward Him, to kiss Him, but I stopped short. Every sin I’d ever committed seemed so real. I just stood there. I could not touch Him. I couldn’t touch Him because of my dirt, my filth, and my sin. Instantly-without ever being taught this-I knew that there was no way that I could ever earn His good favor. There was nothing I could do on my own in order to be acceptable in His sight. I was covered with sin and I kept thinking, How could He love me?”
|To everyone’s surprise, Annie bolted from the room. Outside, she ran into an open field, where she sat down and wept. “I felt God could never love me,” she recalls, “because I had disobeyed Him and hurt Him so deeply.”
At home that night, she fell asleep still asking, “How could He love me? How could He love me?” Somehow, during the night, something changed inside. “The Lord ministered to me so beautifully and gently, that I woke up asking, ‘How could He love me so much?'”
|Dying to Past Loves
The Monday morning following Annie’s spiritual renaissance, she met with one of the top movers and shakers in LA’s music industry. His offer was a stunner…everything that Annie had ever wanted as a performer: a package-deal contract, and the promise that he would groom her to be a star in the entertainment industry. Annie saw her choices clearly: “Inside I heard the Lord say, ‘He’s right. You can have everything you’ve ever wanted-or, you can have Me.’ “But, because I had ‘seen’ the Lord, what choice did I have? In my heart I said, Lord, I’ll take you.” When Annie refused the offer, the man was confused. “Let me know if you ever change your mind,” he said as he rose to leave. “I won’t,” Annie replied, “but thanks just the same.”
Two days later, she found herself reading the psalmist’s words: “I have been young, and now I am old: Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread” (Psalm 37:25). A short time later, she got a call from the president of one of the largest secular record companies in the world. “Annie, we’d really like to do an album with you,” he said. “Thank you,” Annie replied sweetly, “but I’m not going to be singing that kind of music any more. I’ve given my life to the Lord. I’m going to be singing for Jesus.”
The man was incredulous. “Oh, sure. I’ve heard that before. You’ll come running back. And when you do, I will not even mention this to you. You just come back.” “No,” Annie said politely, “I just read today that the Lord will provide for those who trust in Him, and I believe it. But thank you.” When Annie hung up, she was only vaguely aware of what she had begun. Through a series of deliberate choices, Annie Ward was dying to herself and was beginning to live for Jesus.
It was a simple wedding, held in a backyard with only a few people attending. Buck and Annie married in February of 1969. Annie made her own Irish-linen wedding gown, with white embroidered crosses on the sleeves. Annie’s sister Kathryn was the Maid of Honor, and Buck’s friend Noel Paul Stookey was the Bestman.
The newlyweds became part of an informal prayer group that met regularly on Tuesday nights. They had no pastor or teacher to lead them, so the group shared a meal, sang, discussed scripture and prayed for each other. It was a fresh, free, spontaneous and energetic form of worship.
Soon they were running out of space. Buck and Annie found an old Hollywood mansion in need of repair. The rent was $500 a month. The place was huge-with an enormous living room, six bedrooms, and four-and-a-half baths. The Herrings furnished the house with discount furniture that Buck remembers as “seriously ugly, but comfortable.”
Although they were living on a shoestring budget, the Herrings never asked for money to help support the meetings in their home. Nor did they ever inform anyone of their financial need. And somehow God always supplied. Frequently, just as the rent came due, they would unexpectedly find cash on the fireplace mantle following a Tuesday night fellowship.
|Trouble At Home
In the summer of 1970, the Ward family suffered a serious blow. Two years earlier, as the grieving family stood around Elizabeth Ward’s gravesite, Annie’s dad had told her, “In two years time, I’ll be right beside her.” Nearly two years to the day, he died of leukemia.
Following their father’s funeral, the family agreed that the four youngest children should move in with their older brothers and sisters. Nelly and Matthew were faced with the difficult decision as to where to go. “You decide for us” Matthew said, as Nelly struggled with the choice. Jack and Tony went to live with Annie’s oldest brother Irmen. Nelly and Matthew, who were 14 and 12 at the time, decided to move in with Buck and Annie, so they made the trip from Sacramento to their new surroundings in Los Angeles. The Herring’s had been married for less than a year-and-a-half. The trauma of losing both their parents, combined with the pressures of being thrust into an “instant” family, took its toll on both the Wards and the Herrings. Life wouldn’t be easy.
From Nelly and Matthew’s perspective, Annie had moved away from home while they were small children. Their new “mother” was a 23-year-old sister they hardly knew. And her new husband was a big, brusque, bear of a man whom they’d only just met.
|“I think we were both numb,” say Matthew of the decision to live with the Herrings.
“We had just buried Dad and it really didn’t matter after that… It didn’t make any difference where we moved.”Buck and Annie, however, had been praying for Matthew and Nelly long before their father’s death. Their welcome was a foregone conclusion. Although they had little money to provide for Nelly and Matthew the Herrings were excited.At first, Buck and Matthew weren’t so certain. Buck was a strict disciplinarian, “verging on legalism.” Matthew possessed an incredibly quick wit, and Buck too-often mistook his comments for insubordination. Actually, Matthew was merely relating in the only manner he knew. Buck and Matthew’s conflicting personalities made for a volatile mix. Buck’s sternness with Matthew negatively affected Nelly, as well. After all, Matt was her brother; she barely knew the brute who was badgering him. Her compassionate spirit caused her to rise up in sympathy for Matthew, while she inwardly bristled at Buck for being so overbearing.
Nelly and Matthew, as well as Annie and Buck, are quick to credit “the grace of God and the lubricating oil of the Holy Spirit” as their secret to surviving these family frictions. Moreover, the tensions began to ease after both Nelly and Matthew came into a personal relationship with Christ. Still, Buck was often baffled in his attempts to discipline Matthew. “I made innumerable mistakes in my early dealings with Matthew,” recalls Buck. “Finally, I told the Lord this was obviously not working and He gave me some wisdom in what to do.” The turning point in their relationship came when Matthew brought home a series of pink slips from school, indicating the he’d disrupted the class.
|Spanking failed, and Buck felt at wit’s end. “How am I ever going to get through to this kid?” he lamented. He needed a new approach, and he prayed for wisdom.
After praying, he took Matthew outside the house and drew a three-foot by six-foot rectangle on the ground. “I want you to dig a hole here,” he pointed to the rectangle, “six feet deep.” Matthew was shocked, but dutifully he began digging. Years later, Matthew recalled, “I thought of running away, but where would I go? I didn’t have anywhere to go, and I didn’t have any money. So I stayed there and dug.” As Matthew was digging, the Lord revealed to Buck that the hole was to be a grave. Finally, Matthew finished. Buck inspected the plot and said, “You’ve done a good job. Now go into your room and write on a piece of paper all the things you want to ‘die’ to. I don’t want to see the paper. I don’t need to know what’s on it. It’s between you and the Lord. Then bring it out and I’ll help you bury it.” Matthew retreated to his room to write his “spiritual obituary”. Half an hour later, he and Buck shoveled dirt back into the hole, burying the paper. It was the beginning a healing process in their relationship.
|The Gift of Music
One day, Annie sat on the piano stool in from of “Brother Bear,” wishing she could have learned to play when she was a child. With nine siblings, lessons were a luxury the family could ill afford. The best she could manage was to fool with the keys. And then, to her amazement Annie found herself playing a melody. But how? The chords and notes flowed out, as if the Lord was literally giving her a gift of music. “At first,” says Annie, “I’d get these beautiful melodies and I’d ask Buck to write the lyrics to go with them.” One day, Buck replied, “Annie don’t think about writing a song-just sing whatever’s in your heart.” It was this encouragement that opened the way to Annie’s simple, and deeply intimate songs of praise and adoration. To this day, she continues to write in much the same way. “I’m not a songwriter,” she protests modestly. “I’m a song receiver. I start playing, and the music comes.”
When Nelly and Matthew came to live with Buck and Annie, they discovered a comfort and closeness in joining Annie around the piano after school. Their voices blended together in spontaneous, smooth harmonies, so tight, so natural. Was it just that the Ward kids had similar genes-or was there another explanation? Matthew offers: “I used to listen to a lot of AM radio when I was a kid and I learned to do harmony by singing a different note than the guy on the radio. I’d sing with everything. I’d even sing with Mom’s vacuum cleaner as it whirred back and forth across the carpet, changing its pitch. I’d harmonize with anything that oscillated-washing machines, or whatever. You could say I learned to sing harmony from household appliances!”
In addition to Annie’s special gift and Matthew’s offbeat vocalizing, Nelly possessed an amazing ability to find the missing notes between her brother and sister. When this trio sang together, their sound was almost angelic. The Wards and Herrings never intended to become a professional singing group. “We were just singing to the Lord,” says Matthew, “and it was a way of releasing our pain. We had gone through something tragic but we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.” Annie agrees. “When we started singing together, there was such a healing, such a joy in our hearts, that we didn’t want to take it outside of our own living room. It was a healing balm to us. Precious. Personal. Something that was ours.” It would seem however, that the Lord had other plans…
|This is the end of part one of “The Frame Never Out-Did The Picture”. Part two will follow tomorrow.|
|If you are interested in 2nd Chapter of Acts recordings on CD, or Digital Download check out our recordings page at :2ndChapterofActs.com|
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- Part 3 of Forwarded email set about one of the groups from the early years of Contemporary Christian Music: 2ndChapterofActs (ricklivermore.wordpress.com)
- Part 2 of Forwarded email set about one of the groups from the early years of Contemporary Christian Music: 2ndChapterofActs (ricklivermore.wordpress.com)
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